Review: Bomb September 30, 2012Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
Steve Sheinkin’s author biography states that, as a former textbook writer, he is ‘making up for his previous crimes’ by writing exciting non-fiction for young readers. I was one of those kids who read the social studies textbook for fun, so I don’t know what he’s talking about–no, all kidding aside, Sheinkin’s history narratives are a huge step beyond the basic events retelling of most American textbooks. His latest, about the race to build the first atomic bomb, is no exception.
A key challenge facing a lot of non-fiction writers is the problem of how to make a story exciting when most of your readers already know the ending. The majority of kids who read Bomb will probably already know that the United States created the first atomic bomb and dropped it on Hiroshima in 1945. Sheinkin takes on this challenge by expanding his narrative into three parts–the race to create the bomb in the United States, the race to stop Germany from creating a bomb first and the efforts of the Soviet Union to figure out what both the United States and Germany were doing. In many ways, this is the perfect mix of non-fiction topics–spies and wartime for military enthusiasts, and hard-core physics for the science nerds.
In the US thread of the story, Sheinkin explained the physics of building the bomb as clearly and concisely as possible, although I still had to re-read some paragraphs multiple times to get any sort of visual in my head of what was happening. It was also nice to meet scientist figures not often seen in young adult literature, such as Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman (Ottavani’s excellent graphic novel bio notwithstanding). From the thread dealing with the sabotage of Germany’s bomb-making efforts comes the gripping story of Norwegian saboteurs Knut Haukelid and Arne Kjelstrup who repeatedly attempt to destroy materials for bomb-making before Germany could use them. And the sections on the Soviet spies expanded my ideas of the relationship between the US and the USSR during this part of the war, clarifying why the Soviets and their sympathizers in the US felt that the secrets of the atomic bomb needed to be shared and what they were prepared to do to make that happen.
Sheinkin does an admirable job of letting the participants in all three stories speak for themselves and concentrates on the events as they happened, rather than editorializing about whether atomic weapons are a good idea. In the epilogue, however, he forcefully makes the point that with all the atomic weapons in existence now, readers are part of the story, whether they like it or not. As debate goes on about Iran and nuclear energy and politicians argue about which countries have the right to what amount of power, more knowledge of the beginning of these weapons can only be a good thing.